Some Observations on the Poetry of Shamas Faqir
by Prof. A. N. Dhar
[With the advent of Islam in India, Persian
studies gained popularity among the literary sections of the society, that
included the Hindus and the Muslims alike. This led to an interchange of
concepts from Vedanta and Sufism between the two communities. The Bhakti
movement in India provided an additional stimulus to this process of
interchange. The mystical poems of Shamas Faqir, the Sufi poet of note from the
valley of Kashmir, exemplify this cultural synthesis in a remarkable way.
Mystical poetry in Kashmiri (spoken by the natives
of the valley) has a richness and variety of its own, traceable to the mingling
of several cultural streams. This intermingling is specially noticeable in the
poems of Shamas Faqir, a spiritually enlightening study of which is presented
below by the author].
In this paper, I
propose to discuss the religious mysticism with particular reference to Shamas
Faqir, noted Sufi poet of Kashmir. We notice a pervasive mystical element in his
lyrics (composed in Kashmiri) that is Sufi in content and inspiration,
compatible with Islam and, at the same time, comparable in significant way, with
other varieties of religious mysticism. In the introductory part, I shall first
touch upon religious mysticism in general at some length and then give a brief
account of Sufi mysticism in its bearing upon the poetry of Shamas Faqir.
Mysticism, of all shades, is not to be seen as
something remote from religion. Essentially, it is a correlate of religion. The
term 'religion' is generally taken to mean the observance of belief, which is
commonly identified with mere ritual. The mystic, however, does not rest content
with the bare externals of religion. He seeks to attain an intimate, loving
relationship with the Divine - involving a personal 'encounter' aiming at
'union'. He is at once drawn to the ultimate Truth by a passionate curiosity and
an ardent love. His pursuit, therefore, inevitably involves the religious
feeling at its most intense. In this respect, the great mystics of all times and
climes are closely akin to the very founders of various faiths.'
From the biographies of the renowned mystics of the
world, supported by what has come down to us in the form of their sayings and
writings, we gather that while some of them remained mostly absorbed in
contemplation the majority also practised love and piety as the benefactors of
mankind in general. Unlike religious zealots, tied to this or that creed, they
quietly pursued their own ways (as lone adventurers) though they continued to
stay within their traditions. Only a small minority of them chose to dissociate
themselves from orthodox creeds, asserted their freedom and even professed
heretical views. Some of these unfettered mystics, like the Persian mystic
Mansur-al-Hallaj, had to pay a heavy price for their non-conformist views. The
example of William Blake, poet and visionary, also comes to mind here as a
unique mystic whose bold and unconventional pronouncements were not palatable to
the orthodox Christians.
Across cultures, mysticism shares universal
characteristics despite the variety it comprehends. That explains why the
religious mystic is tolerant and accommodating as far as his attitude to other
faiths is concerned. As the mystic advances in the spiritual path, whatever his
affiliations, he realizes that all religions are one in essence and lead to the
same goal. We, in India, are proud of being the inheritors of a rich culture,
presenting a fine synthesis of diverse strands. The Hindu ethos itself has been
largely responsible for this synthesis, conducive as it has been to free inquiry
into the nature of Reality or Truth, and consequently to the flowering of the
The country has built up a rich mystical tradition
going back to the Vedic times, which later absorbed the influence of the Sufi
mystics (who in turn were themselves influenced by the cross-cultural
interaction on the Indian soil). Having had a steady growth over centuries, our
mystical literature involves a wide range of approaches to Reality. This is
consistent with our cultural diversity. Of these approaches, Karma, Bhakti and
Jnana are specially characteristic of Hindu mysticism. Interestingly, they
correspond to the types of spiritual life respectively termed practical,
devotional and philosophical mysticism by Christian scholars.
Another feature that is specially common to Christian
and Hindu mysticism is the theme of love between God and the soul conceived as a
spousal relation. Interestingly, this theme has been elaborately dealt with in
our literature devoted to Krishna and the gopis. In fact, across cultures, human
love has been a dominant motif in poetry of all hues including the mystical.
Most mystics have looked upon earthly love itself as the root of spirituality,
having in it the potential of transfiguring into divine love. This theme has
been dealt with in a variety of ways in mystical literature throughout the
One more related feature common to most varieties of
mysticism is the mystic's account of his advancement in the spiritual path - of
the various states he experiences and the stages he goes through until he
attains his goal. In Christian mysticism, the spiritual 'journey' is depicted as
consisting of three distinct phases - called the Purgative, Illuminative and
Unitive stages of the Mystic Way. The corresponding concept in Hindu mysticism
is that of 'Ascent of the Self', particularly stressed in Kundalini-yoga. While
mystical union is conceived in the Hindu scriptures, including the Upanishads,
as the complete merger of the individual soul with God, for the Christian
mystics it implies the soul's experience of the constant presence of God. We
find parallel - if not identical - accounts of the Mystical Way and all that it
involves in Sufi Mysticism, too.
Islam, as a world, religion, has laid utmost emphasis
on the oneness of God. Thus thoroughly monotheistic, it has also stressed God's
transcendence and man's creature-hood. This is something that does not seem
compatible with mysticism - a dimension of religion that stands for an intimate
relationship with the Divine. In actual fact, however, Islamic worship does not
ignore the immanental aspect of God, including man's innate divinity. Those who
uphold the Sufi path as the "mystical dimension of Islam" assert that
in the Koran itself there are several passages which affirm God's immanence and
quite suggest the possibility of a close communion between the Maker and man. It
is on this account that they justify the doctrine of Irfan or Marifat (spiritual
gnosis) as also the practice of Mahabba (the Way of Love).
As the spiritual offspring of Islam, Sufism had its
fine flowering on the Persian soil. The Sufi orders that grew up in Persia and
other Islamic countries evolved approaches that were mutually coherent and also
consistent with the essential spirit of Islam. Eschewing 'high and dry
intellectualism', the Sufis, like the Christian saints, practised poverty and
penance, preaching their doctrine through love and gentle persuasion. Although
Islam does not encourage monasticism or renunciation of household life, many
Sufis spent their lives as wandering faqirs. The Sufi way had its impact not
only on the Muslims themselves but it impressed the devout in other communities
as well, leading to a healthy interaction and mutual accommodation, a thing
borne out by what happened significantly in India. The receptiveness of the
indigenous culture, specially characteristic of the Hindu ethos, and the liberal
attitude of the Sufis have both contributed, in no small measure to the
composite culture that continues to be our rich legacy.
Islamic mysticism in its literary form, largely Sufi in
content and inspiration, found its adequate development in classical Persian
poetry. The Persian poets showed remarkable ability in using the language of
human love to convey mystical concepts related to the Divine. The terminology of
erotic love, particularly used in relevant context, enabled them to give a hint
of the 'rapture' (wajd) the mystic experiences within the deeps of his soul. The
Persian lyric, called the ghazal, evolved as an appropriate form in their hands
for unfolding experiences profound and esoteric in nature, rooted in their
mystical craving for union with God. Maulana Rumi, the supreme exponent of the
Sufi Way, and other poets like Attar, Saidi, Hafiz and Jami, wrote excellent
poetry using highly suggestive images charged with significance, which gave
superb expression to the theme of divine love. The profane and the sacred are
seen to intermingle in Sufi poetry as they, for example, do in the metaphysical
lyrics of John Donne. Written seemingly in a voluptuous vein, they evoke and
suggest what touches our inmost Being.
With the advent of Islam in India, Persian studies
gained popularity among the literary sections of the society, that included the
Hindus and the Muslims alike. This led to an interchange of concepts from
Vedanta and Sufism between the two communities. The Bhakti movement in India
provided an additional stimulus to this process of interchange. The mystical
poems of Shamas Faqir, the Sufi poet of note from the valley of Kashmir,
exemplify this cultural synthesis in a remarkable way.
Mystical poetry in Kashmiri (spoken by the natives of
the valley) has a richness and variety of its own, traceable to the mingling of
several cultural streams. Its growth began in the fourteenth century with the
famous woman poet and saint, Lal Ded. It was in her time that Sufism first came
to Kashmir through Muslim saints and mystics. Consistent with her Saivite
background, Lal Ded, in her vakhs, neither characterizes the world as illusory
nor recommends external renunciation. She looks upon the objective universe as
the Swarupa Itself (the Real Form) that parallels the Sufi view of the physical
world as Wahadatulwajud.
The great Muslim saint, Sheikh Noor-ud-Din Rishi of
Chrari Sherif (Kashmir), revered by all communities in the valley and popularly
called Nund Rishi, is believed to have been blessed and directly influenced by
Lal Ded. This is confirmed by the reverential tribute he paid her in one of his
shruks (slokas). Mystical in thought and aphoristic in form, his shruks have
impressed and influenced both the communities, Hindus and Muslims, in Kashmir as
the vakhs of Lal Ded. Accordingly, in the mystical poetry that was produced
mostly in the 18th, 19th and 20th centuries (after a long gap, following the two
saints), we notice an interfusion of parallel literary motifs and images drawn
from diverse cultural sources. This intermingling is specially noticeable in the
poems of Shamas Faqir (AD 1843- 1901). It is also to be seen in varying degrees
in the poems of a number of other Kashmiri poets.
No authentic biography of Shamas Faqir, with full
details about his life including what his literary antecedents were, has been
compiled so far. What has, therefore, to be depended upon most in this context
is the text of ninety-six of his poems included in the anthology of Sufi poems
in Kashmiri brought out by the J&K Academy of Art, Culture and Languages,
Srinagar. The perceptive reader can gather many facts and draw useful inferences
from them about the life and literary background of the poet.
As we gather from the scanty biographical information
available, through his upbringing at home and later under the influence of
several seasoned teachers, Shamas Faqir was drawn towards divine contemplation
during his early formative years. He got connected with the Qadri Sufi order and
thereafter, around the age of twenty-five, he went to Amritsar in pursuit of
spiritual knowledge. Here he came into contact with an accomplished Master,
under whom he got fully conversant with the Sufi doctrine and practice. On his
return to Kashmir, he got married and had four children. Yet he remained well
set on the spiritual path and lived throughout in the true spirit of a Sufi
An intensive reading of Shamas Faqir's poems reveals a
lot to us about his religious background and the literary sources that must have
inspired him. This in turn enables us to appreciate better his communicative
skill as a mystical poet, precisely the tools he used to articulate his
perceptions and experiences. As we get familiar with the linguistic tools and
the kind of imagery he employs, we conveniently judge for ourselves the main
sources of his inspiration.
Thus the poem 'Nat', the first in the group of his
poems available, indicates immediately that he is a devout Muslim, well
acquainted with the teachings of Islam based on the Koran and also with the life
of Prophet Mohammed. The poem 'Merajnama' that follows recounts the story of the
Prophet's spiritual journey to the abode of God. In a number of other poems
there is unmistakable evidence of the poet's awareness of the Mystic Way - of
the steps and stages leading to Union that the Sufi Masters are believed to have
To the discerning reader, Shamas Faqir's description of
the Sufi path must appear suggestively similar to the spiritual 'adventure'
given in other varieties of religious mysticism (including Hindu and Christian
mysticism). In several poems, he makes use of the via-negativa and via-affirmativa
approaches in his accounts of the Divine. Each of these approaches to Reality
involves a characteristic language use, which the poet accomplishes so well;
sometimes we find the two approaches deftly interwoven in the same poem. In
quite a few poems, we come across direct allusions to the Persian mystic,
Mansur-ul-Hallaj, and the doctrine of An-ul-Haq (I am Truth) that he boldly
The Sufi concepts offana (annihilation), baqa
(continuity), the terms zikir (remembrance of God) and fikir (contemplation),
the symbolism of the 'diver' in search of 'pearls', the images of zulf
(seductive curl) and khal (the mole on the cheek of the Beloved) are seen to
recur in many a poem. The imagery of jam (wine cup) and mai-khana (wine house)
associated closely with makhumur (the 'intoxicated' mystic) is also recurrent in
Shamas Faqir, linking him with his distant predecessors, the Persian Sufi poets,
in the background. It is they, in fact, who were the first to make innovative
and creative use of language in starting the vogue of this imagery. At places,
Shamas Faqir speaks of his experience of the inward music of the soul, of the
'vibrant string within', that reminds us of anahata (unstrung sound) mentioned
in Surat-Sabda Yoga.
A striking feature of Shamas Faqir's poems is the
diction: using largely the Kashmiri idiom current in his time, he also employs
words from Persian, Arabic and Sanskrit. He can bend language to his needs,
blending harmoniously words from diverse sources together - an achievement
creative in a high degree. In some poems particularly, we notice that he makes a
consistent use of terms (and related concepts) derived from the Hindu Sastras
(including both Vedanta and Saiva texts) with remarkable ease and facility.
As examples we may mention terms like zagrat
(wakefulness), sopan (dream), sushapt (deep sleep), turya (superconsciousness),
terms relating to the four elements including pavan (air) and akasa (ether),
words like soham (He am I), sunya (void), rav (the sun), shiv (Siva), anand
(bliss), om, raza honz (King of swans). He handles the vocabulary and the
related concepts so well that the poems acquire a distinctive Hindu tone. Of
such poems the one that specially comes to my mind is titled 'Pad' (the first of
the sequence). The interfusion of two cultures is indeed very conspicuous in the
Several lyrics of Shamas Faqir centre round the theme
of the mystic's quest for the primal cause of this universe. As an illustration,
the lyric titled 'Agur Kami Manz Drav' repeatedly poses the question, 'what is
the fountainhead of the stream?', which serves as its refrain. Here is my
translation of some significant lines of the poem (attempted to convey the
We can see that the poem poses vital and thought-
provoking questions regarding the First Cause. It instructs the seeker to pursue
the spiritual journey inwardly to realize the Self. This would naturally call
for annihilation of the little self. The answer to the imponderable question
regarding the source of the Cosmos is provided through the intertwined images of
the 'drop' and the 'river'. They parallel the images of the bindu and the sindu
given in Hindu mystical literature, conveying what Swami Ram Tirtha does equally
aptly through the phrase 'Infinite in the Finite'. In the concluding lines, that
lay stress on cleansing the heart as a means to inward transformation, the tone
of the poem changes as the poet addresses his own self. Without sounding the
didactic, the changed tone stimulates self- introspection in the
Day and night does Pavan flow
Through the four Bhavans non-stop;
Whence did it come
And whither did it go?
It was even (all of one hue),
Whence did the stream come forth?
He who owns the sea
Is the Lord of water,
The river issued from the drop;
To get to the meaning,
Sacrifice yourself first;
O Shamas, to attain gnosis,
Throw open your heart's door;
Sun-like, roam the sky through
(To fathom the Secret);
What is the fountain-head?
The Persian Sufi poets have often used the word rinda
in their lyrics. It refers to the true lover, a liberated soul (not tied to this
or that school). With its rich associations, it has been absorbed into Kashmiri
mystical poetry and has by now got into common usage among the Kashmiris. It
occurs frequently in Shamas Faqir's verse too. One poem titled 'Rinda Sara Ho
Sapdi Kunu Ye' is specifically addressed to the rinda. This is how the poet
instructs the aspiring gnostic:
Emphasis is laid in the poem on self-conquest as being the
stepping stone to advancement in spirituality. Whether we call the aspirant a
yogi or an arif, his sadhana has to consist in 'cleansing of the doors of
perception', which involves a disciplining of the mind and the senses. He has to
be discriminative and mentally alert throughout. Shamas Faqir is explicit about
this quality required of the true aspirant:
O rinda, in order to realize the One,
Learn to die while still alive.
The poet draws our attention to the strenuousness and
pains involved in the spiritual effort, in these lines:
Seemingly blind, look keenly for
What you seek, O rinda!
Sifting the pure grain
From the impure,
Winnowing the grains a hundred times
Will reveal the Precious One to you.
Special stress is laid in the closing lines on belief and
Break the stones at the dead of night,
To take away the Gem guarded
by the cobra;
Feed the burning lamp
with your blood,
Eat up your own flesh;
Thus will you, O rinda, realize the One.
In one particular poem titled 'Walo Mashoka Deedar Hav',
the poet employs 'dark imagery' throughout, from the beginning to the end, and
mentions 'black light' specifically in these lines:
Believe before you verify,
That's Shamas Faqir's gospel;
When you get the 'Word'
As a God-sent gift,
O rinda, you'll realize the One.
This poem reminds us of the images of 'darkness' that are
so recurrent in St. John of the Cross, especially in his poem titled 'Dark Night
of the Soul', there is a close parallel between the Christian concept of
'divine dark' and what Shamas Faqir conveys through his images. Similarly, the
names of Hindu divinities such as Krishna, Shyama, Kalaratri, Megashyama,
suggest 'the night of the great release into the oneness of Self', which is dark
only to the senses, not to the spirit.
The Elixir of life is hidden in the dark,
The light divine is dark, too;
Light itself is grounded in darkness,
Pray, meet me Beloved!
The 'human form divine', in its feminine aspect, is
celebrated conspicuously in the poetry of Persian Sufis. Parallel motifs and
images are seen to occur in both Hindu and Christian mysticism. The form
functions as a wisdom figure, which is, in fact, a recurrent image in
literature. It is also identifiable as the 'theophanic figure through whom the
manifestation of God takes place'.
Shamas Faqir too follows this Sufistic tradition as a
poet. In several poems, he introduces a lady as embodying 'Beauty' and 'Truth',
but the images of woman that he employs do not suggest the flesh. In one such
poem title 'Rov', the feminine form, described as 'ashqa sondar', recalls the
Greek goddess Aphrodite. Her physical graces are rendered in fine detail - red
lips, charming teeth, incomparable mouth (dahan), seductive locks (resembling
coiled snakes) and the like. All these images are loaded with mystical
significance in the Sufi tradition.
Another such poem of deep import, addressed throughout
to a woman hailed as the 'esteemed lady', is titled 'Manareniye Pan Badlav'. It
makes an elaborate use of the symbolism that we especially meet with in
Christian mystical writings - depicting the soul as the spouse of God. In the
poem under discussion, the 'honoured lady' is cautioned not to be remiss in
'throwing the precious stone away'. She is advised to undergo 'alchemical'
transformation to deserve the rare gift and the elevation that she seeks as her
goal - which is nothing short of Union with the Beloved.
In conclusion, I should like to reiterate that as a
Muslim poet writing in Kashmiri, Shamas Faqir is outstanding in his grasp and
assimilation of many mystical concepts and images that occur in the sacred Hindu
texts. He owes this assimilation not only to his contact with the co-existing
Hindu culture of his time but also to his own receptiveness and openness of
mind. After Sheikh Nur-ud-Din Rishi of Chrari Sheriff, it is he (before others
followed them) who paid glowing tributes to Lal Ded in a poem wholly devoted to
her, titled 'Zan Mila Nav Bhagvanas Sooty'. The poem shows how high he held her
in his esteem, how familiar he was with her story and how thoroughly acquainted
he must have been with her vakhs. His poems deserve to be read with care, as a
source of delight and spiritual instruction.
[Courtesy - Prabuddha Bharata]
1. William James, The Vaneties of Religious Experience
(New York: The Modern Library, 1929), p. 31.
2. Saiyid A.A. Rizvi, A History of Suf sm in India
(New Delhi: Munshiram Manoharlal Pub., Pvt. Ltd., 1978) vol. I, p.18.
3. See A.J. Arberry, Sufism (London: George Allen
& Unwin, Ltd., 1950; rpt. 1956), pp. 17, 27.
4. See Cyprian Prince, O.P., The Persian Sufis
(London: George Allen & Unwin Ltd., 1964), p. 28.
5. Quoted in B.N. Parimoo, The Ascent of Self (Delhi:
Motilal Banarsidass, 2nd rev. edn., 1987), p.6 (footnote no. 2).
6. See Motilal Saqi, ed., Kashmir Sufi Shairi (Srinagar:
J&K Academy of Art, Culture & Languages, 1985), vol. 1, pp. 311-439.
7. Onwards also, I have quoted a few more passages
from Shamas Faqir's verse (rendered into English by me for illustrative
8. Jankinath Kaul 'Kamal', tr & annotator,
Indrakshi Stotram (Srinagar, Kashmir: Sri Ramakrishna Ashram, 1995), p. 38.
9. E.B. Greenwood, 'Poetry and Paradise: A Study in
Thematics', Essays in Criticism, 17 (1967), p. 19.